American Hustle

Nick Pinkerton on Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s Chameleon Street (1990)

Wendell B. Harris Jr., Chameleon Street, 1990, DCP, color, sound, 94 minutes. William Douglas Street Jr. (Wendell B. Harris Jr.).

WILLIAM DOUGLAS STREET JR., a Black Michigan man with an empty wallet, a florid vocabulary, and a naturally patronizing, aristocratic air, doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. This another way of saying that he fits in just about the same everywhere, a valuable trait for a man in his line of work—namely, con artistry.

In writer-director Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s 1990 Chameleon Street, an embellished version of the life and lies of real Detroit-based con artist Street, Harris, starring in the lead role, gives us a Black Tom Ripley, the most unforgettable underclass antihero this side of Mike Leigh’s 1993 Naked and David Thewlis’s Johnny—another silver-tongued devil with a rather complicated relationship with the opposite sex.

Early on in Chameleon Street, playing in a new restoration at New York’s BAMcinématek, we encounter our protagonist idling in a van while out on a job installing burglar alarms, tolerating his bonehead coworker only as someone easily skimmed on chump change bets and as a sounding board for Street’s complaints about his new wife, Gabrielle (Angela Leslie), and her honeymoon overspending. Not that things are altogether lousy at home: “A girl who reads Gwendolyn Brooks and kisses me like Soul Mate #1 deserves to be my significant other,” Street tells us through the voiceover that will provide a wry commentary on much of the movie’s on-screen action. That “deserves” is noteworthy; a pauper in the eyes of the world, Street knows himself very well to be a prince in disguise.

Preening poise and the intelligence of an omnivorous autodidact don’t get Street too far in the working-class world; he gets punched out at a bar by a belching, racist buffoon after condescending to give the hulking redneck a grammar lesson dressing down. Street’s career as an impersonator starts in earnest at the hospital: He’s knocked out when he checks in, and has opted in when he checks out, adopting a pencil-thin moustache and the pose of a Harvard med–educated internist, a mention of the Ivies being, he discovers, an “open sesame” to the ruling classes. This is the first of Street’s shape-shifting impostures to be described at length in the movie; others will take him to the Yale campus—penetrated with only “a collegiate Buppie haircut” and a blazer with leather elbow patches—and then to a job with the Detroit Human Rights Commission, with pit stops in the penitentiary and couple’s counseling in-between. His arrogant, eggheaded assurance, a liability in the rowdy lower depths, is worth much more in a world where words settle things instead of fisticuffs—remember that “con” is short for “confidence.” After disarming a table of corporate lawyers over a power lunch with a monologue about “wily Caucasians,” Street will return to the office to get a pat on the back from his very Caucasian boss, one of many moments in the film that suggest the white managerial caste may be wily, but it isn’t necessarily very bright.

Wendell B. Harris Jr., Chameleon Street, 1990, DCP, color, sound, 94 minutes. William Douglas Street Jr. (Wendell B. Harris Jr.).

Scrappy underdog though he is, Street is what today is often called a “problematic character,” which is to say he seems like a person rather than a paradigm. He’s a bit of a provocateur and a moody bastard with his wife and daughter, both of whom he berates for mindless materialism, and pursues women that he imagines as more worthy consorts for his splendid self: the “Warrior Goddess” Paula, a college basketball standout played by USC star forward Paula McGee, a native of Harris’s hometown of Flint, Michigan; and Mano Breckenridge’s upper-crust Kenyan Neelish Ratnayaka, whom he rhapsodizes over as coming “from money, from beauty, and from class. . .”

In observing Street’s skirt-chasing, Chameleon Street reveals a side of the Street character that he himself seems blind to: the same obsession with markers of status, manifesting itself in another form, that he complains of in his clotheshorse wife with her Neiman Marcus bills. Street is a bit of a rotter, then, though a compelling one, and not because Harris takes any pains to petition for sympathy in the part: He passes through most of the movie radiating the sly, sardonic self-satisfaction of someone certain that he’s the smartest person in every room that he enters, and he never politely plays down his formidable intelligence. (When a prison pal asks if Street actually reads all of the books piled on his desk, he responds: “And you know what puts the frosting on the cake? I understand them.”) This Street is a smug dandy, to be sure, but while Harris occasionally deflates his character’s pretentions through his plummy performance, he’s after bigger game in Chameleon Street—namely, the class connotations attached to the word “pretentious,” so often used to castigate poor boys and girls who’ve dared to step above their station. What, the movie asks, is more offensive: a conceited intelligence, or a society that disposes of any intelligence that doesn’t come with the correct pedigree?

Harris’s mountebank movie, appropriately, genuflects to the patron saint of cinematic charlatanry, Orson Welles—Harris speaks with a rich, Wellesian orotundity, and Chameleon Street’s closing credits accompany a montage of actors reciting the fable of the frog and the scorpion, as recounted in Welles’s Mr. Arkadin (1955). Most of the film’s references, however, have a distinctly Gallic bent. There is an overhead shot of a swirling coffee cup that immediately evokes Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) and, later, when attending a New Haven costume party where a French rock band called “Fantômas Judex” is playing—mark that one down as a double Feuillade—Street shows up dressed as the spitting image of Jean Marais’s Bête in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty and the Beast. (Shot on 35 mm for around $1.5 million, Chameleon Street gets quite a bit of bang for its buck, and whoever handled this piece of costuming earned their payday many times over.)

Wendell B. Harris Jr., Chameleon Street, 1990, DCP, color, sound, 94 minutes. William Douglas Street Jr. (Wendell B. Harris Jr.).

Such highbrow cinephile allusions have an almost metatextual, in-jokey quality in a movie where imitation is seen as ubiquitous—Street’s prison buddy describes how he used to imitate the archaic grandiloquence of Marvel Comics’s Thor. (“I say, ‘Mom, what hath become of my comic books?’”) Harris’s Francophile references echo one of Street’s ruses; at Yale, he adopts a Pepé Le Pew accent while posing as a student from Martinique—this despite only having a tenuous grasp of French—knowing that well-bred Americans will immediately defer on any point when confronted with the sound of a Romance language. Harris, along the same lines, certainly must have recognized that citations are irresistible to critics, who love having their sense of expertise flattered by such spot-the-reference games—homage as a form of hustle. (Quentin Tarantino, the darling of Sundance two years later, knew this too, but he had the good taste not to razz people about it.)

For a passing moment, at least, Harris did capture the attention of the entertainment establishment—previously an unknown, he rolled into Sundance with his feature debut in 1990 and left with the Grand Jury Prize, which took him from Flint, where Chameleon Street was shot, to Hollywood. Harris had spent almost a decade learning his trade back home at Prismatic Images, a family audio-video production company, where he shot commercials, weddings, and the like. As a stylist, he’s the nearest almost-contemporary cinematic analogue that I know to Detroit Techno—distinctly European influences, in this case Godard rather than Kraftwerk, filtered through a middle-class Black sensibility forged in the fading industrial Midwest.

The idea for Chameleon Street was planted when Harris encountered Street’s story in a 1983 Detroit Free Press article, prompting the first of a series of visits to interview Street at the Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he was then being held, visits that stretched out over the course of three years. It was a long road to the big leagues for Harris, then, but at the moment he finally arrived at the gates he was left lingering on the doorstep, languishing around Los Angeles while Chameleon Street received a merely symbolic release and plans for a studio-backed remake went nowhere—at various points Arsenio Hall, Sinbad, Wesley Snipes, and Will Smith were attached to the project, the last-named eventually going on to make a much more palatable, “well-made,” and imminently forgettable con man movie, Fred Schepisi’s 1993 Six Degrees of Separation. And if the powers that be didn’t know what to do with Chameleon Street, how much less prepared must they have been for Harris’s next passion project, Negropolis, an unrealized Roman epic in which the empire has Black ruling elite governed by an emperor named Canigula?

And so we’re left with Chameleon Street, the lone, coruscating cinematic testament to the lives of Wendell B. Harris, Jr. and William Douglas Street, Jr.—a portrait of the artist as a young con, and the portrait of a con as a young artist. One performer’s ode to another, Harris’s film understands the paradoxical tragedy of Street’s condition: Hiding his identity by necessity he nonetheless yearns to be unmasked, for only in being unmasked, as he is when he’s stripped of his Bête disguise at that Yale party, can the brilliance of his subterfuge be recognized. And to have another chance to recognize the ingenuity and anger of Harris’s Chameleon Street can never be an unhappy occasion, but oh, that there were more Harris films to see. As Dietrich was purported to have said after Marais’s final transformation at the premiere of Cocteau’s film: “Where is my beautiful beast?”

Chameleon Street is screening at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn from October 22 to October 28.